The 2017/18 European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup began this week and boy have we been treated to some fantastic games. Saracens piled on the tries at Franklin’s Gardens to beat Northampton 13-57, Castres were denied a late penalty and missed a last-gasp drop goal at home in a 17-17 draw with Munster. Meanwhile Russian side Krasny Yar pulled off the shock of the round in the Challenge Cup with a 34-29 over last season’s winners Stade Francais, while last season’s other finalists Gloucester left Pau with a losing bonus point after a 27-21 loss.
The game that I will be focusing on, however, is the visit of the Scarlets to Toulon. Last season’s Pro12 champions had a poor start to the game at the Stade Mayol to find themselves 18-3 down at half time. However they recovered well to go ahead, only for a Francois Trinh-Duc penalty to give last season’s losing Top 14 finalists a 21-20 victory.
A killer start
When Scarlets watch this game back, they will know it was lost in the first quarter. In the first 20 minutes they tried to play a territorial game but found themselves 18-0 down after 2 tries (1 converted) and 2 penalties from Anthony Belleau, while Leigh Halfpenny had missed a kickable penalty. As the half wore on, Scarlets finally switched to the expansive attacking play that has won them so many fans and finally began to get on the front foot, with a succesful kick at goal and Johnny McNicholl knocking on as he stretched for the line in the corner. They continued to take control in the second half, adding a further 17 unanswered points before Trinh-Duc’s late penalty sealed victory. They did well to hold on at the end and keep the losing bonus point as Toulon came on a late charge.
Looking at the game as a whole, I would say that Scarlets were good for the win, but the opening 20 minutes were so catastrophic it cost them the game. Much like Gloucester’s losses at Leicester and Pau so far this season, a poor start has been the difference between defeat and a possible victory. If they can put in the 80 minute performances in the remaining games then I think they have every chance of topping the group.
The right calls?
In this game, there were a number of interesting calls from both coaches.
Considering he is the national team captain and arguably one of the best hookers in the world, I was surprised to see Guilhem Guirado taken off just before the hour mark. Other than his try, he may not have been having the same visible impact he has on many matches, but he brings so much experience to whatever side he is playing in. It didn’t prove costly, but had they gone on to lose, could Fabien Galthié have been on the receiving end of some flak for that call?
Wayne Pivac also made a couple of surprising calls in his team selection. Considering stars John Barclay and James Davies were both missing through injury, I would have expected the Scarlets to start with their strongest possible lineup against a Toulon side overflowing with big names and talent. However, they started with captain Ken Owens and Wales scrum half Gareth Davies on the bench. Nothing against Aled Davies, but would the more experienced Gareth Davies have thrown the pass that was intercepted for the first try, or would he have held on to the ball under pressure and allowed the forwards to recycle? There is no way to know for certain, but playing the best available XV from the start may have been enough to avoid the poor start and win the game. That said, having such quality come on later in the game could have saved Scarlets as Toulon went in search of another try near the end. At the end of the day, the records will show that Toulon won this game by a point, but I’m sure some Scarlets fans will beleft wondering what might have been had Davies and Owens been in the starting XV.
A mixed return
Having been deemed surplus to requirements by Mourad Boudjellal, I’m sure Leigh Halfpenny would have had extra incentive to have a big game at Toulon. He had a mixed day at the Stade Mayol with a try but missed 2 penalty kicks that he should have scored.
In defence, he was willing to put his body on the line as usual and at one point saved a try by forcing Josua Tuisova into a knock on. However his attempt to tackle Tuisova for Guirado’s try was terrible! Players much bigger than Halfpenny may also struggle to stop the Fijian winger, but Halfpenny’s technique was terrible and he got his head int he complete wrong place and required a HIA after being bumped off. This is not the first time he has tackled like this – I mentioned when he first moved to the Scarlets that his tackle technique was questionable – and he really needs to work on this soon or his career will be ended early and not on his terms.
Credit where it’s due
Referees don’t often get the recognition they deserve after a good game, so I’m saying it here: I was very impressed by Luke Pearce’s performance at the Stade Mayol.
He may not have got every decision right, but what referee does? The important thing is that he got the big decisions right and considering the way that everybody will interpret the same incident differently that is no easy feat. Just take the penalty against Tadhg Beirne for his challenge on Belleau. Beirne attempted to charge down his clearance kick, only to catch the fly half’s left leg after the ball was gone. Pearce initially allowed play to continue, saying the Berine was already committed, however after watching the replay he gave a penalty to Toulon, which I can understand as the contact is nowhere near Belleau’s kicking leg and is entirely on the other side of his body. #RugbyToulon (@rugbytoulon_) ran a poll on twitter, which at the time of me writing this has had 57 responses. 47% felt that the clash was nothing, 40% felt it was a penalty, while a further 13% felt the incident warranted a yellow card! As fans, we can all check the Laws of the game and we have the benefit of multiple replays, so if we struggle to agree on an incident it must be even harder for a referee who has thousands of home fans baying for blood all around him.
Pearce kept his cool throughout despite the ‘assistance’ of the home fans on any possible incidents. My one criticism would be the lack of communication in French, but this is the case with most referees from outside of France. Pearce frequently impresses me and I would argue that he is one of the best referees in the Northern Hemisphere.